I haven’t stopped thinking about Dragon’s Dogma for the past seven years. I don’t replay Capcom’s action RPG often. In fact, I’ve never actually completed the game in total — never maxed out a character’s stats or finished every quest — in either the original version of the game or the expanded edition, Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen, that was recently released in spectacular fashion on Nintendo Switch. Dragon’s Dogma is simply too weird, too cumbersome, too gluttonous in how it devours your time, to indulge multiple playthroughs.
Yet I don’t think a week has gone by since I made my first character back in 2012 that the game hasn’t crossed my mind. As the product of one of the most idiosyncratic old-school developers, it’s too distinct an artifact to fade into the background. That’s why Dragon’s Dogma seems to just keep popping up, in stores and in my thoughts, even though it’s never truly broken through to the mainstream: there’s nothing else like it.
“I think this is due to the original game design’s potential. I have great respect for Hideaki Itsuno, the director of Dragon’s Dogma, for being able to come up with this concept,” Kento Kinoshita told. I’d asked Kinoshita, the gameplay lead on Dogma who went on to direct of both Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen, what it is about this game that keeps it stuck in my head. The premise is simultaneously familiar and totally bizarre: you’re a fated fantasy hero in a sword-and-sorcery world destined to bring down a dragon god. But you’re also surrounded by inhuman, soulless warriors who do your bidding populating the world like a bunch of LARPing tulpas like it’s no big deal. Those pawns are just part of the game’s disquieting atmosphere, which makes wandering into a lonesome cave only to discover a disgruntled townhouse-sized cyclops inside such an disquietingly addictive pastime.
Kinoshita says the secret to Dogma’s success is an expert balance. “In this single player game, the hero is accompanied by a pawn who fights independently, making it feel like you’re embarking on an adventure with someone else. The open world is perfectly sized — vast, but not overwhelming. The characters live and breathe in this world, as well as the bosses and enemies you encounter. The breadth of in-game action is massive: you can launch teammates at foes, mount monsters, and take them down in a number of ways. Each element of the gameplay is immersive.”
Every element of Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen does slot into place just so. The swift fights and simple character development is simple compared to, say, Capcom’s Monster Hunter, which Kinoshita worked on previously. And while both games emphasize drawn out, dramatic encounters with giant mythical creatures in a vast fantasy landscape,Dogma feels both more terrestrial and more abstruse, like a very strange dream about a very real place. Though it shares the drab, earthy look of many games made between 2005 and 2015 — a far cry from the flamboyant artistry that characterizes most games coming out of Capcom’s Japanese studios — it still feels essentially Capcom. Going all the way back to the Dungeons & Dragons-fueled fantasy of games like Knights of the Round, Magic Sword, and Shadow Over Mystara, Dragon’s Dogma is build on a loving but twisted appropriation of classic Euro-centric fantasy tropes. It’s fitting that this game is getting yet another shot at a new audience on Switch in 2019, a year when Capcom is having a renaissance with amazing games like Devil May Cry 5 and Resident Evil 2.
I asked Kinoshita why Capcom seems so recommitted to this old creative spirit in 2019. “Personally speaking, I think this change is based on the fact that industry standards have been raised,” he said. “Developers overseas have been able to make game designs immensely immersive, dramatic experiences with high-quality graphics based on the game engines they are using. Capcom creative staff developing new games wanted to meet and/or exceed the standards of these overseas AAA titles that were being released, while expanding upon the company’s lineup of well-known IPs.”
Kinoshita has also been at Capcom through multiple periods of creative growth and contraction. He first joined the company back in 2002,when Capcom was coming to the end of an innovative boom that began in the mid-’90s with games like Resident Evil and came to fruition with wild experiments like God Hand, Viewtiful Joe, and the original Monster Hunter. When the industry shifted to HD a few years later, Capcom struggled to maintain its distinct identity. When Dragon’s Dogma first appeared in 2012, it was an outlier in the company’s stable of games like Lost Planet 3 and Dead Rising 2 that had been developed by western studios. In the past few years, though, Capcom’s found its footing by recommitting to its Japanese studios, the series the made them famous, and the panache with which they’re made. Kinoshita, meanwhile, has been plugging away the whole time, rising up through the ranks and making fascinating games. I asked him what working with Capcom has been like between releasing Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen on Switch and the cel-shaded racing game Auto-Modellista, his first with the company.
“Some things haven’t really changed,” he told me. “Capcom staff, many of whom prefer not to be bound by traditional rules, still want to make great games. When I first joined the company, each team would put their full energy into creating games (including Auto-Modellista) from scratch. About ten years ago, however, the foundation of game creation shifted to engine-based development, and the use of Capcom proprietary engines like MT Framework and RE Engine changed the flow of how games were made.”
If you haven’t played Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen before and you’re looking for something to get lost in on your Switch, I recommend it with a caveat: you have to let it grow on you. The game is chilly and strange from the moment you start, and discovering its charms takes an adventuresome willingness to lose time. Don’t go in expecting to immediately be swept away. Try to find your own way into it. Kinoshita agreed with that sentiment. “These days many users have a tendency to consult strategy guides while playing games. If possible, I’d love for users to try to play Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen for the first time without referencing information or hints and instead trust their gut feelings. You should be able to feel the thrill and excitement of adventure games.”
As I’m wont to do with creators, I also asked Kinoshita what kind of cocktail he would recommend pairing with the game. “I admit that I’m a bit stumped by this unconventional question,” he said. “I’d choose a cocktail that’s easy to drink with both a flavor that grows bolder and richer over time and a sweetness that awaits in the last few sips.”
I’m going to choose to interpret that as a Perfect Manhattan while I mull over Dragon’s Dogma for another seven years.